If Stranger Things Had a Black Protagonist

Spoilers ahead. Seriously.

I recently wrote about how to do a better job coming up with racially diverse protagonists, as opposed to writing an all-white cast, realizing what you’ve done, and trying to find someone re-writable at the last minute. One of the tips was to mentally recast stories you like.

Stranger Things is ripe for this exercise. It’s a great show with talented actors, but it does not do well with race. The setting is Hawkins, a small Indiana town in the ’80s, which would realistically have a white majority and a few Black families. The fact that there are only a few Black characters isn’t what I’m objecting to. They still had full control over who they picked to represent that Black minority, and unfortunately the writers picked Lucas.

Lucas_Sinclair_001

Lucas barely has a personality. He is the sidekick who carries the conflict ball. Worse, he frequently insults my favorite character, Eleven, and that absolutely poisoned my ability to like him. Given how popular Eleven ended up being, I’m certainly not alone in that. If your audience keeps wishing your only Black character would shut the hell up, you’ve gone seriously wrong.

The last couple of episodes did redeem him somewhat, so I hope season two will make better use of his character. Still, I can’t help but wish they had represented the Black population of Hawkins with a protagonist, instead of a sidekick.

Hopper

Hopper

The thing about demographics is that your age, race, gender, orientation etc are always a part of you, but at some points in your life they are major factors, and at others they are minor. It’s fine to recognize that you aren’t qualified to write a Black Person’s Story (TM). But that’s no reason to never write Black protagonists, because everyone’s life is made of thousands of little stories. You can pick the stories where a person’s race isn’t the biggest element.

Hopper is a perfect example of this. His primary identity, in this show, is as a cop. He is pulled between his fear that he’s overstepping his jurisdiction to find a missing child, and his worry that he isn’t doing enough. He battles obstructive authorities, sorts through red herrings and struggles to see the truth. In this setting, those conflicts wouldn’t be changed by his race.

Hopper is also a good illustration of how the spotlight itself can act as a vaccine against stereotyping. In the course of his investigation, he sometimes resorts to violence. If he were a secondary character, those moments might comprise most of his screentime. Even though it’s heroic violence, it could still potentially feed into aggressive Black man tropes. But because he’s a protagonist, he’s allowed a greater degree of complexity. He gets backstory, moments of introspection, doubts, vulnerabilities, and even scenes that showcase his gentleness. He’s balanced and multi-dimensional.

I am white, so take everything I just said with a grain of salt. I might have completely overlooked something problematic; if you think I have I would love to hear from you. This goes for everyone below as well. But on the whole, based on what I’ve learned so far, Hopper feels like the safe choice.

Joyce, Jonathan and Will Byers

Joyce and Jonathan

If Hopper is the safe choice, this is the risky one. The Byers are dirt poor. Mr. Byers is a deadbeat who abandoned them a long time ago, and Joyce struggles to find enough time to spend with her sons. Furthermore, this isn’t a poor town. The Byers are outliers, looked on with suspicion by most everyone else. If you made them the only Black family as well… I’m sure you can all see the problem.

In this case, being protagonists wouldn’t fix anything. Hopper is shown being violent and gentle, confused and canny, confident and conflicted. The Byers don’t ever stop being impoverished. If the spotlight is the vaccine against stereotyping, they have the egg allergy.

Another issue is that Will and Eleven’s resemblance to each other is a plot point. This means Eleven would also have to be Black. Eleven’s mother is a catatonic addict. Sure, she took drugs as parts of an experiment, but you see the problem. Also, there’s an implication that Eleven’s biological father didn’t even stick around long enough to learn her mother was pregnant.

That’s not to say nobody could write the show this way. But if you wanted to do this, you couldn’t ignore the racial issues. You’d have to change the show, to actively discuss race and poverty. I, as a white writer who was raised in the middle class, would not feel comfortable doing this. My life so far hasn’t given me anything special to say about those issues, but my privilege would elevate my voice. I’d end up talking over people who really have experiences to share.

The Wheeler Family

Mike is the classical  children’s protagonist. He’s brave, smart, and precocious, but still figuring out who he is and how to take care of things on his own. He’s part of a group of friends, but in this story he takes the lead, and their actions revolve around him.

Mike

For some reason, this character is always coded as white, but there’s no reason for him to be. I can think of Black cops, like Hopper. I can’t think of any characters like Mike who are Black, and I can’t think of good reasons for that. So I’m already liking this option.

Then there’s Nancy. When I imagine her as Black, she actually gains depth.

Nancy

She’s a good girl going through her rebellious phase; kissing boys instead of doing her homework, tasting beer, generally seeing what it’s like to not live up to her reputation. You can relate to her identity crisis, but it’s fairly prosaic. There’s nothing to set her apart from all the other characters like this.

Suppose, however, she was the only Black girl her age in a small, predominantly white town. She would exist in a world where she is spared some of the uglier, more overt displays of racism, but still has to deal with a constant feeling of not quite fitting in. She still sees a culture that doesn’t consider her type of beauty the “right” kind, and that will project a trashy image on her regardless of what she does. A few scenes could be enough to paint this picture. She sees a scene from a Blaxploitation film on TV, flinches and changes the channel. She stares a little too long at a blonde model in a lipstick advertisement. A shopkeeper is a little too watchful of her, and she imagines snapping at him, but doesn’t. All her life, she has overcompensated, by being a clean-cut, straight A student, and she’s sick of it. We would understand that Steve, who is edgy but rich and popular, offers an opportunity to cut loose while still fitting in.

The bulk of her story could remain the same. Stranger Things wouldn’t have to be about race, like in the example with the Byers. Race would just become a facet of Nancy’s character arc, which helps distinguish her, and raises the stakes of her conflict.

In fact, this change would actually solve a story problem. You know that scene, at the end, that made us all go “WHY??????!!!!!!!!?????” Imagine she’s the only Black teen girl in town. Imagine she has to decide between Steve, who elevates her status, and Jonathan, who associates her with stereotypes she’s desperate to avoid. I’m still mad at hypothetically-Black Nancy, but at least her decision makes sense, instead of being character assassination committed for no goddamned reason besides prolonging a love triangle.

Now, I’m not saying that making the Wheelers Black is the one true correct story choice. Rather, it’s the one that makes me, as a writer, go “ooooh!” Now I’m interested in someday writing a story with Black characters like Mike and Nancy.

That’s why I like this exercise. I think the reason we got stuck with Lucas as the token Black kid is that the writers weren’t excited about writing diverse characters. They were thinking, “better put a Black kid in there somewhere so nobody will yell at us.”

That’s not how either good writing or good representation works.

How to Come up with Diverse Protagonists

A couple years ago I wrote a post titled What to do When All Your Characters are White. I liked it, but in retrospect, it describes short-term solution. Panicking about representation partway through planning a novel is not exactly the ideal situation. It’s better to have character ideas that naturally run across a spectrum of identities.

Some might argue authors have no control over what inspiration they are struck with, but I disagree. Personally, I have gotten better at this over the years, although it’s still a work in progress. So, as a follow-up to that old piece, I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me avoid the problem of whitewashed casts in the first place, instead of just patching it up at the last minute. I’m focusing on race, because that’s the area where I’ve needed the most improvement, but I think these tips can apply to any kind of diversity.

1. Honestly identify your comfort zones.

This was a tough one for me, but it was an important step. It’s uncomfortable to tell yourself something like “I’m more nervous to write Black characters than any other race,” but when I did I could work on it, and it’s not a problem in the same way any more. I think white people have a sort of collective don’t ask don’t tell policy when it comes to worries about race. None of us are supposed to admit that we have gaps in our knowledge, or stereotypes, or anything of that ilk. But if you aren’t willing to recognize what needs to be worked on, you’ll never improve.

The Chaos
The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson: a weird, fun novel about confronting your inner demons.

2. Research pro-actively, not reactively.

Something I’ve noticed about research in general; last-minute research works best for details and side characters. The quality of your story improves if the main elements draw on subjects you are already familiar with. This means you should never wait for a story idea before researching something of interest. If you want to write mysteries, make it a habit to read about crime, the history of police work, law, forensics etc.

By the same token, if you realize at the last minute that your 1930s Chicago crime thriller needs more Black people, and you only have superficial knowledge of race relations in that time and place, you might have to decide you don’t have the expertise to write more than a few minor characters. But the more time you spend educating yourself about race relations and other cultures, the easier it will be to write more and more significant characters from all backgrounds. This also applies to educating yourself about racist tropes and what people really want to see more of. It’s easy to stumble blindly into a problematic trope. Educate yourself by reading media criticisms written by POC, and awesome blogs like Writing With Color.

Saving Face
Saving Face: an wonderful comedy that wouldn’t have worked without the author’s intimate knowledge of Chinese-American culture.

3. Re-imagine your favorite stories with diverse casts.

Writers are inspired by other writers. I think this is a major source of the ubiquitous white man protagonist. Sherlock Holmes inspires House. Clark Kent creates a genre for Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker to be born into. King Arthur creates a trope of Secret Royalty with Epic Destiny, and sets the default to “straight white teenage boys.” What happens if you take your favorite white characters and make them Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc? Do they actually change? Does it bring up new issues that could be fodder for an interesting story? Would this story be too challenging for you right now, and if so is there something you can do to bridge that gap? See point two.

sister-mine
Sister Mine, also by Nalo Hopkinson: fits into the Gods-on-Earth subgenre, but with loads of Afro-Caribbean mythology

 

4. Remember that everyone around you is a protagonist.

As writers, we love talking about gaining inspiration from all around us. But is that unadulterated inspiration? Or are we still influenced by the narratives around us? The think often we are. The interesting looking white guy gives us an idea for a main character. The story our Uber driver tells about growing up in Cameroon just inspires a scene where that white guy gets in a cab with a Cameroonian driver.

We all know everyone is the protagonist of their own story. But I’ve found it helpful to actively look at everyone around them and imagine the story where they are the main character. Some of these are stories I couldn’t write. One Uber ride didn’t give me enough material to capture all the nuances of Cameroon. That’s not the point. The point is getting into the habit of seeing everyone as equally protagonist-y.

Little Mosque
Little Mosque: a fantastically funny show where the Muslim community gets the spotlight.

5. Read and watch work by non-white creators.

Saved for last because it’s the most important. First, as I said before, art inspires art. This could be a whole post of it’s own, but short version; I’ve grown up in a world that mostly puts white artists in front of me. This means that my inspiration for non-white characters has largely come from white artists, who themselves were copying other white artists, who were inspired by other white artists… This process can’t create original, lifelike POC characters who represent the diversity that’s out there. If you want a fresh outlook, go straight to the source. Find musicians, actors, comedians, directors and yes, writers who aren’t white.

Second, while I think white people have a responsibility to undo some of the damage our ancestors have done, it’s important to not go so overboard that we talk over POC. You need to respect the actual voices of the people who you are trying to represent. You need to elevate their voices directly, not just borrow them. There are also plenty of reading lists on the internet. Also, every book/film/TV show pictured on this post was written by someone who isn’t white, so if any of them appealed to you, there’s your starting point.

Warning; if you follow this advice, at some point you will be angry because all these authors with their awards and their amazingness and yet I’ve never heard of them why????!!!!!

BloodChild
Octavia E. Butler: you are so wonderful. Where have you been all my life?

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic; A Matter of Obedience

 

This episode centers around Tom Reilly, a longtime friend of Whit’s. Tom is every old timey stereotype in the book; the positive ones, that is. From the perspective of the Adventures in Odyssey team, old fashioned and traditional is automatically better. For example, the Bible School class Tom has been ask to substitute teach, though inherently Biblical and therefore wonderful, has been tainted by the teacher’s newfangled ways. As Reynold the teacher’s pet explains;

“We learned that the word obedience as it appears in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word hupakoe, meaning to give fulfillment of God’s claims and commands, and hupatage, which means to bring under subjection.”

“Anything else?”

“It took us the whole class to learn about hupakoe, Mr. Reilly.”

How? You defined both words in one sentence.

I’ve been in plenty of Sunday School classes (and regular classes) where the teachers touched on the Greek, Hebrew and Latin root words. It never took up a whole class, in fact never more than a minute. If it did, it was because the root words were genuinely interesting and enlightening.

I also find this an ironic criticism. This series never stops praising the Bible, and emphasizing the importance of studying it, but God forbid you learn the copy in your own home is just a translation. God forbid you learn anything about the original language, and the subtleties that may have been lost. Tom rants for a while about this Bible School where they don’t read the Bible, never mind that, in a sense, that’s exactly what they were doing. He realizes that the duty of truly teaching them about obedience has fallen to him, and decides to tell them a story.

Not a story from the Bible, mind you. Just something that happened to him as a kid. You know, REAL Bible study stuff.

Tom’s father was a country doctor during the Great Depression. One day he asked Tom and his sister Becky to deliver some medicine, while he went to see another patient. Before he left, he gave Tom a list of instructions.

  1. Take the Single Path through the Gloomy Woods. It’s long and windy, but it’s a direct route, so they won’t get lost.
  2. Take a knapsack of food, because the trip will take most of the day and they will be hungry.
  3. Don’t play around. This means you, Tom. You can’t afford to waste time goofing off.
  4. Don’t talk to strangers on the way.
  5. Knock on the house with the blue door, and tell the man there who you are. Don’t knock on any other doors, because the people in that area don’t trust strangers.

He also advises his son to take a pocketknife, on the general principle that every story needs a Chekhov’s Gun. Becky also brings a book, because this good old-fashioned story wouldn’t be complete without Tom making fun of people who read for fun she doesn’t want to get bored.

Naturally, Tom goofs off on a bridge over a stream and promptly loses the knapsack, and they spend the bulk of the trip suffering hunger pangs. He nearly breaks rules four and one, when a stranger approaches and offers to show them a shortcut and food, but Becky talks him out of it. When they finally emerge, Tom is so desperate for this whole ordeal to be over, he runs up to the first house he sees and knocks on a red door.

Becky points out how red is an extremely un-blue color, but Tom brushes her off on account of… reasons?

Of course the woman who opens the door assumes they are evil pranksters who must be locked up in her basement while she goes for help. Naturally.

Luckily, she leaves the key in the door. Tom joyfully announces that Becky’s book will finally be useful for something. He tears out a page, pushes it under the door, knocks the key out with the pocketknife, pulls it under the door and unlocks it from the other side.

They finally follow their father’s directions to the letter, complete their mission and get some food. And if the story had stopped there, I honestly would have thought it was fine. A bit obvious and trope heavy, yes. But overall, a standard children’s morality tale. Unfortunately, this being Adventures in Odyssey, we can’t just stop there. We have to have the moral explained to death, to make absolutely sure we don’t engage in any independent thought.

As Tom says to his class;

“That little adventure taught me how important it is to obey. Even when it’s not convenient or when I don’t understand why I’m being told to do something, and even when I don’t want to. I tried to make excuses and argue, and I was wrong, and suffered because of it.”

As Tom talks, he puts the emphasis on “why,” even though that does not apply to the story. Each rule came with a clear explanation from his father, and he disobeyed it anyway. He goes on like this for a while, to make it clear that obeying is always, always good and disobeying is always, always bad. If we learned “obey people who give directions that make sense and are for the good of everyone involved,” we learned the wrong lesson. We should have learned unquestioning obedience.

Obedience, I think, is an act of trust. It is only virtuous if we are trusting those who have earned it. Sometimes they earn that by giving us clear reasoning. Other times we choose to trust someone because of their track record. And yes, some people start out in an authority role, like a teacher, parent or boss, and it’s worthwhile to trust that they got that position for good reasons. There’s a difference between that and blindly following someone who gives directions that are damaging and foolish.

I don’t trust leaders who try to argue obedience is something we all automatically owe them. It tells me they know the foundation of their authority is weak.

Final ratings (because I’ve decided that should be a thing)

Best bit: Every named character follows a Tom Sawyer theme. It’s moderately funny when you notice it.

Worst bit: Anti-intellectualism – fun for the whole family!

Story: It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s not bad. B –

Moral: Once again, they skirt close to a good message, but explain it to death and add problematic elements in the process. D

The Long Fight For Progress

Dear Bernie Sanders Voters,

On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Riots kicked off what most historians see as the modern LGBTQ movement. We had roots going back before that, but this was the moment that set us on fire. It was the day we found our power. It was the day we said “enough.” After decades of work from that movement, I was given the right to marry my boyfriend, only a year and a month ago. We are now like any other couple, wondering if the finances are right and whether we’ve waited long enough to not be “rushing it,” not wondering when our country will be willing to recognize that I’m his and he’s mine.

And even with this landmark crossed, I feel the fight for my extended queer family is nowhere near over. I still see my little brothers, sisters and non-binary siblings harassed, beaten, killed or driven to suicide. I still have to mourn fallen trans comrades every November 20, on Transgender Day of Rememberance, including far too many beautiful trans women of color. As a trans man, I experience the humiliation of hearing people debate whether or not I have the right to use a bathroom.

I think Bernie Sanders was for leftist socialists what the Stonewall Riots were for the LGBT movement. The ideas were there before, but this year I saw people taking action on these economic policies in a way I never have before. I saw unity and passion. Bernie lit a fire for you, and it warmed my heart to see it.

Now when I see disappointed Bernie supporters, I feel a range of emotions. Part of me honestly sympathizes. It’s hard to see yourself come so close, to imagine you are about to hit a goal that once seemed unbelievable, to feel momentum pushing you forward and then realize it wasn’t enough. I’ve been there. It sucks.

Part of me also feels a little bemused. I shake my head and think, “did you really think things were going to change that fast? Have you not looked at the history of progressive movements? Progress has never been a sprint. It’s always a marathon.”

But most of me fears the movement being put out too soon.

It has taken the LGBT movement so long to hit even the landmark victory of marriage equality. That doesn’t mean we were stagnant for forty-six years. We took small achievements when we could. We didn’t want civil unions, but they gave couples rights that they needed. There were people whose life partner was dying in a hospital, and they couldn’t visit, because they “weren’t family.” Those people couldn’t wait for us to make some all or nothing stand. So we took what we could get, then we got up and kept fighting. The same thing goes for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It wasn’t the acceptance we wanted, but it gave LGBTQ people in the military at least a veil of privacy. We took it. Then we kept fighting. We elected gay leaders. We saw them shot down. We survived an AIDs epidemic. We kept fighting.

You’ve done some truly awesome things this year. You exposed issues with the system, showed that progressive socialism isn’t toxic to a campaign, and, in Bernie Sanders’ own words, forced the Democrats to adopt their most progressive platform in generations. You got the Democratic establishment’s attention, and just because your candidate didn’t make it to office, that doesn’t mean you can’t leverage that attention to push the party further and further to the left. 

But if you let the Republicans take control of the government, those victories will mean nothing. We can’t put that progressive platform to action if the man we have in the office spends all his time boasting about an imaginary wall while handing out tax cuts to the wealthy. 

I only just got marriage equality. More than that, I only just got the ability to go back to college. My parents kicked me out and I’ve been struggling on half a degree ever since. With my testosterone prescription and my anxiety disorder, I can’t go back to school without insurance to cover my medications. I can’t pay insurance without help. Obamacare is letting me get ahead. If Trump is elected, he will steal my hopes of marriage and college in a heartbeat. Along with that he will destroy environmental regulations, a diplomacy-based approach to foreign relations that keeps us from constantly declaring war, the whole concept of raising taxes on the wealthy, Roe v Wade… Even when he’s gone, the Supreme Court Justices he elects will remain. Those of us who have been fighting for basic human rights, as women, as racial, religious or ethnic minorities, as disabled people and LGBTQ folk, we will all experience setbacks. We will experience repercussions for years.

You can avoid that setback, for yourselves and all the rest of us. You can use this moment to move forward, not backward. Unite to put that progressive platform into power, and if Hillary Clinton disappoints you, take her on again in 2020! Elizabeth Warren, anybody? I’ll be right there with you. 

So what do you say? Were you just in this fight for a sprint, or are you ready for a marathon?

July Hiatus

Hi all!

I’ve got three big things going on this month. Number one, I’ve decided to take part in Camp NaNoWriMo. Normally when I do a NaNo month, I pre-write some blog posts so I can keep up my 4-6 blogs per month. This time I didn’t get a chance, because, number two, I’m going through a big job change. I’m going back to school and switching to substitute teaching for the year. Number three, I’ve decided both this site my Tumblr is due for an overhaul. I’m teaching myself social media management as I go and I think there’s a lot I can do to improve both sites, and use them more effectively to promote each other.

I am prone to getting overwhelmed and burned out when too much is going on. I do put a lot of work into my posts, so I’ve decided it will help significantly to put them on hold for a month.

I hope you are all having a wonderful summer, and I’ll be back in August. Thanks, as always, for reading.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist; A Tangled Web

This episode opens with Connie making plans with her friend to sneak away and see a concert. In classic “as you know, Bob,” style, she reveals to us that her mother wouldn’t approve of her going, which is why it needs to be a secret. Dun dun dunnnnnn!

She asks Whit if she can leave work early, and he says he’s fine with it, but asks for her help sorting through some books. Some are ones he bought, and others he wrote himself. He picks up one and laughs, saying it’s a particular favorite of his. He isn’t really clear on why; the main adjective he uses is “cute.” Connie is curious, and despite Whit is happy to let her take a break done and read it.

The story is about a kid who is described as good, but going through a stage where he wants more independence. He wants to go to Whit’s End to check out some new displays, but his parents tell him to pick up some flour. His dad needs to use to car for work, and his mom needs to stay home and watch the baby, so he’s the only one who can do it. Instead of going straight to the store, he decides he can do both. Naturally, he ends up both losing track of time, and losing the money.

When he arrives home, he tells his mom that some bigger kids stole the money from him. In standard morality tale style, the lie escalates until he’s receiving an award from the mayor for… reasons? Anyway, he ends up in front of a big audience, being given honors he knows he doesn’t deserve. He takes a deep breath, and accepts it. He lives out the rest of his life without ever being found out.

Connie is startled by this ending. Narrative convention dictates that he be found out, and learn that you can’t get away with lying. Whit asks her if he really did get away with it. For the rest of his life, he has to remember that one time he deceived his mother, and it weighs on him long after everyone else has forgotten the whole incident. It shouldn’t surprise any of you to know that Whit figured out long ago that Connie was going to this concert and lying to her mother. He tells her she still has the afternoon off, if she wants it, but she should think hard about what she’s doing.

The episode ends with Connie calling up her mother.

I have complicated feelings about this episode. Complicated here means, “I essentially agree with their point, but details of the execution bother me, and I’m honestly unsure whether the pros outweigh the cons.” Lies can occasionally be justified, such as when you’re protecting yourself or someone else from abuse, but in most cases they just trade a little temporary inconvenience for an emotional cage. Whit’s story illustrated this very well.

On the other hand, his methods were manipulative. There’s something ironic about telling a lie to convince someone to not lie. My approach, if I were in Whit’s place, would be to ask her why she doesn’t think her mother would approve. Sometimes, when you make someone spell their reasoning out, they realize on their own that it’s a bad idea. Other times, you learn that you have been misjudging them, and that they have better reasons for their actions than you thought. Maybe her mother is manipulative and stifling, and Connie just needs to get away and be herself for a bit. I’ve been there. If that’s the case, and I think the concert is not a good place, maybe I could offer her a safer means of escape.

Speaking of which, it isn’t clear why this concert is so bad. In Adventures in Odyssey, the word “concert” is automatically suspect, unless modified by “classical” or “Christian.” Also, parents are always right, unless they are non-Christian, in which case they are always wrong. In my world, though, there are a number of factors that affect whether this is a little bad or extremely bad. Will Connie be exposed to drugs and alcohol and do I trust her to be responsible about that? How far away is the concert? What kind of people will she be with? Does somebody know exactly where she’s going and when she’ll be back? Does she have someone she plans to check in with at any point? The writers of the show and I have very different values. They worry that about the state of her soul, which is best protected by controlling her tastes, influences and sexuality. I mostly just care about her safety; if she’s sneaking off to see the Grateful Dead in the park I don’t see what the problem is.

An open, honest conversation about his misgivings would have run the risk of Connie going ahead with her plans, but you know what? When you genuinely respect someone, you take that risk. You try to minimize the damage they can do to themselves and prevent them from hurting others, but other than that, you respect their right to learn from their own mistakes.

And in a way he did, in that he gave her the afternoon off, but I actually feel like it would have been less manipulative to simply say, “no you can’t have the afternoon off.” He would be perfectly within his rights; she made a commitment and chose to ask at the last minute. Instead he does her a favor, which makes her feel indebted to him, and then guilt-trips her.

So in the end, I think I’m coming down on this episode having more negatives than positives. I still think it’s better than some of the previous episodes I’ve reviewed, as there is a genuinely good point in here, but the execution is manipulative and hypocritical.

Activist Audiences

I really enjoyed this video on whitewashing. It’s by Philip Wang, one of the geniuses behind Wong Fu Productions, a company that publishes comic and romantic short films on Youtube. All of the owners are Asian, as are most of the actors they work with. I highly recommend them.

Philip Wang makes the point that there have been many good conversations about whitewashing, what it is and why it is bad, but not enough done to actually correct it. It’s not just about complaining. We also need to create, and support creators. He talks largely about the fomer, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about the latter.

These days activists talk a lot about paying attention to where our money is going. Are we supporting fair trade, ecologically sustainable practices, humane treatment of animals, human rights? Or are we inadvertently telling companies that child labor is awesome? Sometimes, because of our budgets and time, we can’t help but buy something that’s a little less ethical than we would like, but being aware at least lets us maximize the choices we have. When we choose to watch all of the Avengers canon movies, and then complain about Black Widow, our money means a lot more to the executives than our articles. When we choose to spend money on quality stories with diverse casts, like the new Star Wars films, the recent Jungle Book adaptation, and Dope, we tell those who are financially motivated that such things are worth their time to support.

Who we pay attention to also matters. Nowadays our eyeballs are practically money. Views determine who gets ad revenue, as well as who moves up the ranks of the publishing business. I follow a number of artists (musicians, comedians, short film creators etc) on Youtube. Many of them have stories about gigs and deals they got largely because of their internet followings.

None of that is revolutionary. I also think reinforcing creators can be complicated, because creators themselves are imperfect. I can’t think of many who are flawless social justice masters. I’m not even sure such a thing can exist. The conversation about what social justice is and how we can best create it is, itself, an ever evolving discussion. For me, supporting diversity is less about trying to find someone who is perfectly attuned to the current consensus on Tumblr, but about supporting creators who want to participate in the conversation. Whose work evolves over time? Whose portrayals of women are getting more nuanced, and who is still writing one token sexy action chick? Who is apologizing and actually trying to do better? Who is making promises and carrying them out?

In a way, this is an umbrella introduction to a number of posts I have in the pipeline. I want to write more about how I make decisions on what to read, watch and spend money on. And I want to hear about how you make those decisions, as well as your recommendations of works for me to check out and review.

Until next time, thanks, as always, for reading.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist; Nothing to Fear

Revisiting these episodes is reminding me of what a pedestal they were on. In my family, Adventures in Odyssey episodes were imbued with a kind of mystical reverence. I believed they held keys to existence and that taking their advice seriously was the secret to good Christian living. Not as much as the Bible, of course, but they were awfully Biblical and, frankly, easier to understand.

I’ve briefly worried that this is biasing my reviews. Am I blaming them too much for screwing with people’s heads, just because the status they held in my family helped them screw with mine? Then I realized that no, it can’t just be me, because they weren’t passively placed up on that pedestal. They actively campaign for the position. I mentioned in my first review that an annoying lady named Chris gives us a preview of the moral, and a summary of it, just in case we haven’t had the point thoroughly hammered into our head yet. She also makes promises that the upcoming episode will answer our questions, interpret the Bible and make our lives generally perfect.

For example, in this episode she says we will learn a way to make our fears go away, and never come back. Those are her exact words, “go away and never come back.”

The protagonist, Shirley , opens our story with a nice scream, because her friend Jake is showing off his pet mouse, Luther. And by friend I mean “asshole who occasionally associates with her.” After deliberately shoving a phobia of hers in her face, he laughs, and Whit comes over to see what the trouble is. He learns that Shirley is scared of mice, as well as heights, fire, crowds, being alone, turtles, the merry-go-round, toy guns, stuffed animals, the street, the woods, bikes, the dark, loud noises… he actually fails to find something she’s unafraid of. He even asks if she’s afraid of him, and she says, “no, except when you wear your big jacket. It’s kind of creepy.”

Whit gets her to gently hold Luther, which seems to be helping her realize there’s no danger, until it bites her. She drops it and the mouse runs off. This isn’t the part I have a problem with. Gradual, controlled exposure to sources of anxiety can help people overcome fears, both ordinarily and ones that are parts of mental illness. I’ve sometimes used a kind of self-guided immersion therapy to deal with my anxiety disorder. It’s just bad luck that Luther the mouse doesn’t cooperate.

Unfortunately, supportive, gradual exposure to triggering stimuli is not the actual theme of this episode. The actual theme is what Whit tells her.

“There are fears we need to overcome, not just because they are harmful to us, but because they show a lack of faith in God. The Bible says that perfect love casts out all fear.”

To make his point extra clear, he compares God’s love to a light switch in a dark room. You don’t have to move the darkness out to make room for the light. One is there, or the other is. The light casts out the darkness instantaneously.

This is incredibly harmful, because it won’t always work, and when it doesn’t, it creates feelings of shame and inadequacy on top of the existing fear. To be clear, I’m not just saying it won’t work because I don’t believe in God. Many people of different and mutually contradictory beliefs find comfort in their beliefs. A religion doesn’t have to be true to be consoling. I even rather liked the Veggie Tales episode on being scared. But Veggie Tales also affirms that fear is normal and okay. Whit makes any lingering nervousness a direct measurement of your lack of faith.

Shirley goes home to get the bite looked at, and has an intense nightmare about a giant mouse eating her alive. She wakes up to her Mom using the vacuum cleaner, which is also a source of anxiety for her. As she sobs in her mother’s arms, she asks why she has to be afraid all the time, and her Mom is unable to calm her down.

So, for the record, the official stance of this episode is that Shirley is a “scaredy-cat.” Chris actually uses the dictionary definition of scaredy-cat to introduce her. Shirley’s also called a coward by Jake. Whit protests that but seems to object more to the name-calling than the accuracy of the statement. The one label he doesn’t want to put on her is “crazy,” which disturbs me. I wouldn’t call Shirley crazy either, but I would say she shows every symptom of having an anxiety disorder like me.

  • Time. Shirley talks like a seven-to-ten year old, in terms of both voice and vocabulary. Everyone acts as if she’s been this fearful all her life. It’s normal for children to go through phases where they are a bit shy or anxious, but typically they get over them. Longstanding anxiety like this is a sign that something’s chemically imbalanced.
  • Intensity. Look at that list. Look at the severity of her reaction. Look at how pants-wetting panic is her default mode. That’s not normal.
  • Lack of a cause. A child who is experiencing stress at home or has been through a traumatic event will probably have some heightened anxiety for a while. Shirley’s home life seems to be happy and stable.
  • Irrational fears. A few of the things that scare Shirley are rational, like fire, but most are completely harmless. She can intellectually acknowledge that she’s not in danger, but is still afraid.
  • Quality of life. This is the most important one. It’s the ultimate divider between mentally healthy and in need of help. Do the symptoms interfere with your ability to go about your everyday life? Do they take something away from you? Shirley is miserable. She is driven away from places that are supposed to be happy and safe, because she can’t control her fear. She cries over her inability to stop being afraid. She has an anxiety disorder, and she should see a doctor.

For the record, I’m not saying she needs meds. Maybe she does and maybe she doesn’t. I’ve known people who rushed to medicate themselves or their children when some patience and therapy would have done the trick. I’ve known people who put off much-needed medication because of nebulous stigmas, and I include myself in that category. What Shirley needs is between her and her hypothetical doctor, but what she doesn’t need is to be taught that if she can’t control her fear it’s because she’s a bad Christian.

Meanwhile, Jake decides to punish her for losing Luther by luring her into the basement of Whit’s End and exposing her to darkness and generally scary noises. He even rigs boxes to fall over and such, just to maximize the creepiness. Did I mention he’s an asshole? His plan backfires and he falls into his own booby trap. His ankle is twisted and he can’t go get help, so Shirley has to make her way through the dark to find someone. She does this, because people with anxiety disorders are often quite brave in a crisis, because they’re used to being scared so suddenly being in a scary situation doesn’t faze them she sings Bible songs and is filled with the love of Jesus and is magically fearless.

Afterward, she gets some ice cream at Whit’s End and talks to Whit about how Jake will be okay, although he’s grounded for pretty much eternity. Shirley explains, for the benefit of the audience members who haven’t gotten the point yet, that loving Jesus is magical fear-repellent. She declares that she might never be afraid again. Connie then comes in with a cool bug she found, which causes Shirley to shriek in terror.

Whit and Connie laugh. Because it’s funny that her lifelong battle with irrational terror isn’t over yet. Because it’s funny that either she doesn’t love Jesus enough or vice versa. Because somewhere in the development, they decided to end every goddamn episode with Whit laughing, and who gives a shit whether this undermines the whole point of the story.

I have emphasized the medical because, the way Shirley is written, it’s easy for a person with actual mental health issues to identify with her. I remember I did. And the sad truth is that this kind of message isn’t even uncommon in religious circles. I’ve known many Christians who are supportive and knowledgeable about mental health, but I’ve also known Christian communities that stigmatize it and treat it as pure lack of faith. Because of this, I’ve known people who have suffered silently and attempted suicide, rather than seek treatment. When you heap guilt and threats of divine condemnation on top of a chemically fragile mind, the cost can include a human life.

And what really bothers me is that, with that final scene, there seems to be some inadvertent admission that this magic bullet isn’t quite so flawless as they make it out to be. There’s no other indication that this whole “love Jesus and stop being afraid” thing might not be that simple. Remember how Chris opened the episode? Yet, it makes sense that on some level they know it’s an exaggeration. I mean, they must have felt how their own worship never makes the fear go away completely and permanently. Brains just don’t work like light switches. Despite this, they are comfortable telling impressionable, inexperienced children that if they experience fear, it’s because they lack adequate faith and love in Jesus.

Thankfully, I didn’t actually listen to this episode that often. It scared the crap out of me.

Mulan and Masculinity

I’m at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, and I’ve got that song from Mulan running through my head. You know the one. On the surface, the lyrics of this song reinforce many of our most problematic ideas about masculinity, including;

  • A person’s ability to perform masculine ideals define their gender identity
  • Masculine ideals are so lofty as to be nigh superhuman (“you must be swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the moon.”)
  • Being womanly and being weak are practically synonymous, which is why the most humiliating thing is to be defeated by a woman

Yet everyone who hears this song knows it is from a movie where the protagonist is a woman.* We know the joke is on the singer, even before we see the film, but one of my favorite things about this movie is that it goes a step further than the standard gender-bending woman power stories. All too often, those stories challenge the first idea, by having a woman successfully perform masculinity, but leave the second untouched and sort of whistle awkwardly past the third. Sometimes the men are the butt of the joke for being outdone by a woman, and very often the only person worthy of her affection is the one man who really can best her. In Mulan, on the other hand, everything is taken a step further.

Li Shang and Ping

First, Mulan is, initially, terrible at fulfilling Li-Shang’s expectations… and so is everyone else. The cisgender men are all overwhelmed and struggling. The film has introduced Mulan as someone who struggles with femininity, which makes her feel inadequate, but then it dares suggest that people of all genders can struggle to live up to the idealized expectations of masculinity and femininity. When Mulan succeeds, it is celebrated because it marks a turning point for all of them. They ultimately live up to Li-Shang’s standards, not because of the inherent gifts of testosterone, but because of teamwork, persistence and loads of practice. It’s like the “masculine” ideals of strength and bravado can be fulfilled by anyone sufficiently dedicated to master them, regardless of their hormones or chromosomes. What a novel concept.

Speaking of which, I love the three soldiers who become her friends. Initially, they bully her. This is… honest. Brutally honest. In my experience, the worst gender bullies are always the ones who are insecure about their own presentation. From the Republican senator who bemoans gay rights only to be caught with a rentboy, to the scrawny nerd who trolls anyone who dares identify as both geek and woman, hypocrisy is the classic defense of the man who can neither live up to standards of masculinity, nor work up the courage to rebel against it. Because toxic masculinity is so hierarchical, it’s easy for them to decide that, if they can’t climb the ranks, at least they can make sure everyone below them stays down.

This is what her friends initially do. They are failing Li-Shang’s tests, so they make sure those around them won’t succeed and make them look bad. But Mulan refuses to play this game. Instead, she persists and, through her success, inspires them to work on themselves rather than keep putting down anyone weaker. I love that this is addressed. I love that children get to see how shitty that bullying is, and cheer for the discovery of a better way. I love the reminder that masculinity doesn’t have to be about being better than everyone else. It can be about collaborating and being better together.

Yao Ling Chien-Po

Second, the love story isn’t about Mulan finally finding a man who can defeat her, or some such sexist bullshit. In fact, Mulan never fixates on or pursues him. It’s Li-Shang’s character arc that drives the romance. He learns that his rigid concepts of gender roles are stopping him from finding true love with someone whose best traits are best recognized outside of the gender binary. Mulan is not the “Girl Worth Fighting For” they sing about (another song where sexist lyrics are deftly skewered by the context). She doesn’t need to be. Everything she is is wonderful enough.

Finally, and here’s my favorite part, Mulan never comes to perfectly embody masculinity, or femininity. She does become a much, much better warrior, but so does everyone else, and throughout the story she is more likely to use creativity and intellect to solve her problems than brute force. In the end, she returns to feminine clothing, albeit in a more subdued, gender neutral way.** The story isn’t about how she’s awesome because she’s masculine, unlike all those awful feminine women. It’s about how she’s brave, smart, resourceful and loyal; heroic traits that can go with any gender presentation.

Mulan

I want to do many more reviews of stories that explore gender, and especially explore how we tell stories about masculinity; how we spread toxic messages, and how we can do better. But for now, I’m off to hang out with awesome trans-spectrum type folk. If you have any requests for gender-centric stories that you want me to review, please leave a comment. Films are preferred, because it’s easier for me to find the time to watch and rewatch them, but if there are books or TV shows or anything else I’ll do my best. As always, thanks for reading!

*Her portrayal is consistent with just about any gender identity, including trans male and nonbinary. That is to say, she never says anything about who she feels she is, but rather about her sense of duty to her family, so you can read into the story what you want. I’ll refer to her with female pronouns, because that’s what she uses in-story, but I support all headcanons.

**Okay, okay, my personal headcanon is that today she would label herself genderfluid or a gender non-conforming woman. This is largely because she seems clearly uncomfortable with her initial attempts at performing extreme femininity, but not at the end when she is presenting as a woman again. I don’t think she would have looked as happy if she didn’t feel that “woman” was at least partially true to who she was. But that’s just my interpretation.

Adam and Ronan

Raven Cycle spoilers ahead, but only for the Ronan/Adam subplot.

Maggie Stiefvater is rapidly climbing my list of favorite authors, and the conclusion of the Raven Cycle only solidified that. I was extremely nervous but completely satisfied; in fact I think The Raven King is my favorite in the series. I don’t want to ruin anything for those who haven’t read it yet, so for those who haven’t, I’ll only say that it’s a modern quest with beautifully broken protagonists, and one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read. The first book is Raven Boys. Go get it.

There is a lot to praise, but there was one small aspect that stood out to me. In the end of the second book, The Dream Thieves, we find out that one protagonist, Ronan, is gay. We also learn he is in love with another protagonist, Adam. Up to this point, we’ve believed Adam is straight. That is, he briefly dated one of the female characters, and of the many things torturing him, doubts about his sexuality isn’t on the list. Maggie Stiefvater likes torturing her characters, so I was sure this wasn’t going to end well.

And yet, Adam realizes he wants to be with Ronan. This realization doesn’t come with a lot of anguish over how this shreds up his whole concept of who he is. Nobody dissects whether Adam is gay or bi or just gay for Ronan. He just falls in love with Ronan. The central issue isn’t their sexuality, but the fact that both are very damaged human beings, and there’s this question of whether they will help each other heal, or break each other further.

It’s not a coming out story. It’s just a love story.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Coming out  love stories are awesome. I love them. But I do get frustrated at the single story effect on gay romances. They’re always sad and anguished and full of this questioning of your fundamental identity. Many queer people have one story in their life that is like that, but some don’t, and even among those who do, it’s rarely the only love story they will live. Sometimes we just have regular romances, like straight people.

For once, I don’t really have a grand point to make. I’m just so pleased to see a gay romance that broke the mold, and also Ronan and Adam are fucking perfect.